Seeking first people who lived in Swift County

APPLETON -- Trowel-packing archaeologists have ventured everywhere from the wild rainforests of Tasmania to the empty deserts of Mongolia to uncover the secrets of our past.

Entering GPS coordinates
Matthew Warwick enters GPS coordinates to mark where a stone flake or chip was found along the Pomme de Terre River in Swift County. Stone pieces that appear to have resulted from flint knapping -- the making of stone projectile points and tools -- will be analyzed at Minnesota State University-Moorhead. (Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny)

APPLETON -- Trowel-packing archaeologists have ventured everywhere from the wild rainforests of Tasmania to the empty deserts of Mongolia to uncover the secrets of our past.

Yet none has ever probed the much kinder landscape formed by prairie and lakes in Swift County.

They should, for all the same reasons they've taken their trowels to the far edges of the earth.

"Because we know so little about it,'' said Dr. Scott Anfinson, Minnesota state archaeologist.

Anfinson spoke as he and George Holley strode atop a natural terrace Thursday along the Pomme de Terre River in Swift County. They were looking to find chips of stone and other telltale signs of early human habitation. Holley is an assistant professor with the Department of Anthropology & Earth Science at Minnesota State University-Moorhead.


Holley and his colleagues along with 10 students from the department are exploring the Swift County landscape to identify sites of possible archaeological significance. Their work is funded by a Legacy grant that Anfinson obtained to help preserve and protect cultural heritage in the region.

Holley and colleague Michael Michlovic will develop an inventory of the sites where there is evidence of past human habitation, and describe the kinds of places where others might be. They are also revisiting some of the previously discovered sites to assess their condition.

They will prepare a narrative on the significance of what may lie underneath the soils of the 757-square-mile county based on what they have found.

There has never been an archaeological excavation in Swift County, mainly because little has been done in the way of looking for what might be there, according to Anfinson.

Swift County ranks 84 among the 87 counties in the state in the number of known sites of possible archaeological importance.

There was limited work undertaken in Swift County in the late 1970s and early 1980' to identify sites of potential archaeological significance. Some 13 different sites where early peoples once lived were identified.

"Clearly there are many more,'' Anfinson said.

Holley and his students added eight new sites to the list in the first week of their work alone, and expect to find more yet in the week ahead.


The land now known as Swift County was rich in resources for early peoples. The prairie supported herds of bison and a diversity of other game. The Pomme de Terre and Chippewa rivers and numerous, shallow water lakes offered everything else: wood for fuel and winter shelter, waterfowl, fish and other aquatic foods.

Anfinson is a Benson native who authored a book in 1997 on the early history of southwestern Minnesota.

In it, he demonstrated that the prairie lakes region of western Minnesota and adjoining portions of Iowa and South Dakota comprised a distinct ecological region.

The peoples who have inhabited this area since the last glacier retreated 12,000 years developed their own unique cultural orientation, he wrote.

Many have always considered this area as a transition zone between the Plains culture to the west and Woodlands culture to the east. That is based on the mistaken assumption that there were only a few cultural heartlands in the midcontinent, he wrote.

Very little is known about the early cultures here -- not even what the first peoples called themselves, he said. There have been finds of pottery pieces that have no match anywhere else, he said.

In more recent times, the prairie lakes region was part of the Dakota homeland. Swift County represented a tension zone where the Dakota and the Ojibwa interacted.

Holley anticipates identifying occupation sites dating from the Paleo-Indian era -- when people are believed to have moved frequently in small bands as hunter-gathers -- to the more recent, when people established villages and practiced some cultivation.


The survey information will be made available to state and local governments to protect against the unintentional destruction of the possible archaeological sites.

Anfinson hopes that what the University team finds will eventually lead to the next step: Excavations and work that can tell "what were they doing at the site.''

Stone tool
This portion of what is believed to be a stone tool was among the materials collected from a field being investigated in Swift County. (Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny)

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